Beki Grinter

Shame in Academic Writing

In academia, academic management, discipline, research on August 10, 2011 at 1:33 pm

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published a piece about shame in academic writing. I read it the day it was published. It’s about writing, but it is also about the relationship of writing to a research career.

I know these feelings too. I don’t suppose they ever go away. As the career progresses each phase of assessment brings about new doubts. These doubts are compounded by the rather nebulous criteria to which one finds oneself bench-marked. Even in Industrial Research, where I had an annual performance appraisal to which my continued employment was explicitly tied, there were always the other criteria that I needed to work in, the ones that would allow me to transition back into academia. The ones that are so hard to explain but remain ever present. And even, if I imagine a time when they might disappear, I think there are a set of internal standards that most all academics I know hold themselves too. A constant assessment of their career. Is it enough, should it be more. Writing is at the heart of a lot of this, which is why I think writing becomes such a focus for these feelings.

Reviews can exacerbate these feelings (and are of course related to career assessment anxieties). Not just the ones that an advisor gives to a student, but the ones received when a paper is rejected. Research is built on a foundation of peer-review. There have been many discussions about this process as one that tends to emphasize faults rather than identifying the positive. If nothing else, this article should serve as a reminder to write constructive reviews, especially when being critical. But more generally, research is an enterprise built on a foundation of criticism, and anxiety about that criticism. No wonder then that writing becomes a source of concern, it is also a focus for that.

The author writes and I was struck by the number of the times she uses “she” to describe an encounter. But, I don’t believe it’s restricted to women. Indeed, quite by chance I had a conversation with a male colleague recently that reminded me of this article. One reason I’m blogging is to practice writing more frequently. Not all of it is scholarly writing. But, I’ve often felt that my writing was worse than colleagues I know. And been pleasantly surprised when others have told me how much they admire it.

  1. You mean “Indeed, quite by chance I had a conversation with a male colleague recently that reminded me of this article.”

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